This is going to be a difficult post, friends. It’s time to have a serious talk about girls and compliance.

Let’s be clear right up front. On one level, this is about a dear friend’s book and how a review of that book got it wrong.

Conflict of interest, I know. But I’m determined to speak up because:

  • the review isn’t simply wrong about this particular book – it espouses a wrong-headed view of how girls in kidlit “should” behave;
  • the review misses a subtle, but significant message in the story’s resolution – that people have the right to appear on the outside the way they feel on the inside.

princess_frogsThe book in question in Veronica Bartles’ THE PRINCESS AND THE FROGS, which I blogged about earlier this week [that post is here].

Veronica is in one of my critique groups, so I had the chance to see this book develop from initial draft to its final form as a picture book.

I am going to focus on this book and one review in particular. I’d like to look at how language used in the review shows that there are still harmful cultural expectations about the way girls are portrayed in children’s books. I am not, in this post, going to take on the fact that pushing girls to be compliant has huge implications about female sexuality, women in the workplace and in government, and gender equality. Ready?

Several weeks ago, THE PRINCESS AND THE FROGS was reviewed by a major publishing industry magazine.

Let’s take my first point: The review isn’t simply wrong about this particular book – it espouses a wrong-headed view of how girls in kidlit “should” behave.

After describing the plot and praising the author’s Frog Prince retelling as a “fun idea,” the anonymous reviewer goes on to say, “the heroine’s imperiousness comes off as spoiled and snooty, as opposed to empowered.”

I sat with these words for a few hours. “Imperious” and “spoiled” jumped out at me. When I was growing up, “spoiled” was one of my family’s code words for “you are not being compliant.” My parents used both this word and “selfish.” It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized, I’m not an abnormally selfish person. This was coding for “you’re not doing what we want you to do, the way we want you to do it.”

Authors, we’ve got a lot of reprogramming to do around the issue of girls and compliance. Books like THE PRINCESS AND THE FROGS are a great step forward.

In this story, Cassandra is young princess who says what she wants [a frog], stays clear about it [the book’s refrain, “princes aren’t pets”], deals with a resulting problem [every frog she kisses turns into a prince], and solves it herself, achieving her goal.

This was my reaction, which I shared on Facebook.

I’m sitting with a review of a friend’s PB. The main character is a girl who is clear and steadfast about what she wants (in the book). She is called a spoiled brat (in the review). Any women out there ever get told you should be flexible or adaptable instead of sticking to what you want? Mmm hmm. Me too.

Women responded with the many ways they were chided for not being compliant. These included:

  • I’ve been told “stop being so petty,” re: insisting on fair treatment.
  • I’ve been told, “Your standards are too high.”
  • “You attract more flies with honey than vinegar.” Thanks Mom… not really looking for flies…
  • “Brat” and “whiny” are code words for female. Sadly. I once saw a review of “Speak”–a novel about a teenage girl who goes mute after being raped–that called the protagonist whiny. Think about that–she was raped and she’s MUTE, but she’s still called whiny.
  • “You have too many ideas about the world… You’ll never get a husband if you always talk about them” (my ideas, thoughts, vision, opinions).

To the last comment, I responded, “The character in this book is also more focused on her own ideas (in this case, it’s a kid, so having fun) than on being partnered with a male.”

[BTW: Thanks to the male kidlit authors who posted support on that Facebook thread.]

In THE PRINCESS AND THE FROGS, frog after frog turns into a prince. Each one proposes a quick wedding, but Princess Cassandra isn’t ready to give into those societal expectations. Without throwing a tantrum or threatening anyone, she sticks to what she wants: a pet to play with and be her friend.

Yet the reviewer goes on to say that the story, “may leave readers wondering why a prince can’t be the best friend she wants to badly.”

This leads me to my second point: The review misses a subtle, but significant message in the story’s resolution – that people have the right to appear on the outside the way they feel on the inside.

SPOILER AHEAD – please skip if you don’t want to know how THE PRINCESS AND THE FROGS ends.

Cassandra comes upon “a bedraggled little prince sniffling in the garden.” The little prince tells Cassandra he doesn’t want to be a prince. He liked being a frog. When Cassandra kisses the top of his head, he turns back into a frog and the two live happily ever after.

For me, this is one of the most powerful moments in the book. We have a character who feels one way on the inside (frog) and is miserable in his body (boy). Cassandra accepts him as who he says he is. Only then can their true friendship begin.

It is irresponsible for reviewers to perpetuate outdated cultural norms, including the implicit expectation that girls and women, boys and frogs, are only valuable when they are compliant. By implying that the main character should settle for a prince instead of the frog she wants, the reviewer missed how powerful the book’s resolution is. The final frog prince doesn’t want to change his identity in order to be part of Cassandra’s life. He wants to choose who he is and (like the princess) have a say about what makes him happy.

I’d like to thank Veronica Bartles for giving a shout out to all those kids who feel like frogs, and LIKE feeling like frogs. Cassandra may be a princess, but she prefers the company of people who are authentically themselves, instead of complying (there’s that word again) with society’s expectations.

Let’s celebrate non-compliant girls (boys, princes, and frogs) from children’s literature. Let us know your favorite characters in the comments.


5 responses to “It’s Time to Have a Serious Talk about Compliance”

  1. […] I’m going to spend another day on this book tomorrow, when I’ll address the importance of non-compliant female characters in kidlit. [UPDATE: The post is up!] […]

  2. Laura, Very important post. I’m raising a young daughter with two big brothers. They want her to always be sunny and willing to give them hugs. I have to protect her right to have bad moods and not want to give hugs. I do it for this same reason — it’s not good to teach girls to set aside their own desires to be available to someone else’s littlest need, despite that being a reasonable definition of “mother” in our culture. We need to teach girls to pay attention to what they need and get it, and then they can be the best “mother” or “friend” or “wife” or “superstar” or “normal kid” that they can be. I am careful, always, to teach all my kids to give each other space and not expect compliance. I feel sad that our culture expects girls to be self-effacing and accepting of what others want, but then punishes them if they are taken advantage of. We, as writers, have to help girls and boys see that the world is bigger than the little boxes most people see themselves fitting into.

    • Laura Shovan says:

      Thank you for sharing that, Brenda. In the climate of a Trump presidency, I think about the ways that sexual predators use this cultural preference for compliant girls to target their prey.

  3. There is nothing that a girl “should” be, other than exactly who she wants to be. Thank you, Laura. <3

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Laura Shovan

Laura Shovan is the author of the award-winning middle grade novel, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary. Her second book, Takedown, is a Junior Library Guild and PJ Our Way selection. Look for A Place at the Table, co-written with Saadia Faruqi, in 2020. Laura is a poet-in-the-schools Maryland.

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